The fundamental meaning of leadership is service. To lead is to serve.
Lao Tzu was the first person who wrote about the concept of servant leadership in the Chinese classic text Tao Te Ching, but it was Robert K. Greenleaf who coined the phrase in his 1970 essay entitled The Servant as Leader. In that essay, Greenleaf wrote:
The servant-leader is servant first... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
My thoughts on the subject do not wander far from Greenleaf’s. Leaders must be servants. Service is necessary in developing one’s authority as a leader. Authority and influence cannot be bought or inherited—they are earned through service.
Motherhood is a great example for how authority is developed. We grow up adoring, respecting, and obeying our moms because of the unconditional love, care, and service they gave us.
Many leaders of today have lost this kind of thinking. They lead with compromised principles and make use of shady methods that build a cult of personality.
I only follow a person who follows the truth. Once they deviate from the truth, I cut ties with them. The truth is the only thing I follow. Many of today’s leaders do not follow the truth. They put their personal interests over the wellbeing of the people and communities they lead.
We often look down on what we call servants and the work they do. For me, what they do is something I can call divine. Good servants voluntarily give up their personal interests, time, and comfort, and willingly go through pain just to make another person happy or comfortable. There should be a servant in every leader.
A true servant leader is one who truly cares, has compassion, and shows mercy. Servant leaders have a strong ability to empathize with the pain of others. Their compassion is not selective; it’s all encompassing. It extends to all living beings—humans and animals.
One cannot serve with arrogance. Humility is the essence of service. Humility is courage. A humble person is willing to accept difficulty and humiliation in the name of true service.
Imagine you were driving down a deserted highway and you accidentally hit a person. If you’re humble and compassionate, you’ll drive that person to the nearest hospital and make sure he or she gets proper medical care. If you’re arrogant, you’ll simply drive away and leave that person for dead. Arrogance is cowardice. It takes a lot of courage to face a problem and deal with it the right way.
A lot of today’s leaders tend to lack this fundamental leadership trait. They think humility is a weakness and arrogance is strength. They lead with authoritarianism with no regard for the needs and sentiments of their followers.
The great leaders of the past, from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi, were never arrogant. They were true servants of their people. They spoke of nothing but the truth. They were humble and peaceful individuals but confident about themselves and their principles. They served not themselves, not their whims and caprices, but humanity. What compelled them to be leaders was not power but service to mankind.
Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner whose nearly 26 years in jail never made him bitter or vindictive. His release from prison marked the end of apartheid in South Africa, but he didn’t take revenge against his former oppressors. When he was elected President, he pledged to unite the people of his country—the Afrikaners (white South Africans who came from Europe during the 17th century) and the black natives. One of the many ways he led his nation by example in terms of racial equality was by hiring Afrikaner staff.
Being a servant leader is an honorable position, especially in business. Businesses are run by people and business leaders should lead by example. There should be no separation of personal and business ethics. A good business leader is strong but humble, driven but caring and compassionate towards his employees, business partners, and customers. There is no room in their hearts and minds for arrogance or selfishness. They put the success of the business and the people running it above their personal interests.
While we should demand these qualities in our leader, we ourselves should strive to develop these servant-leadership qualities within us. Every day, we should look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “Am I the leader I want to follow?”
JOSEPH T. BISMARK is a dynamic business leader, yoga instructor, and martial arts expert. In his early thirties Joseph encountered a network marketing leader who would become his business partner and mentor. Together they founded a network marketing company that grew into a global conglomerate of businesses, of which Joseph became the Managing Director. Author of The Gem Collection: A Compilation of Wisdom and the Gems of Wisdom blog, Joseph resides in Singapore and Dubai.
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